Tag Archives: Art thoughts

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I have a scar on my left knee. It has been there for more than 30 years.

I was about 7 when I fell hard onto a Yorkshire pavement and grit worked its way deep into the graze. I raised such merry hell about having it cleaned, that my mother missed some of the dirt. There is nothing left on the surface now, just a faint black line drawn deep into my flesh but I carry a piece of Yorkshire within me. Perhaps that's why I chose to return here, like a fish heading home.

The need to make art is like this. A scar that heals but remains visible. The grit in the oyster.

Artists talk of ideas that irk and niggle away at them. 'The work just wanted to be made,' they say, 'I was haunted'.

Haunted, niggled, irked, irritated. A pearl making oysters from dirt.


Oyster with Pearl
Oyster with pearl by Max Garçia via a Creative Commons license


I recently reread some of my old sketchbooks from college and was deeply amused to read page after page where I was stuck, frustrated or worried about my work. It made me laugh because they were exactly the same things I'd been thinking about my current work.

Seeing those same emotions surfacing a decade apart, it suddenly forcibly struck me that my process is rooted in struggle. Sooner or later, I will always doubt, I will always resist, I will always feel anxious because this is how I make my art.

While I don't enjoy it, I've come to recognise that it's not a problem. Sure, it would be nice if work flowed easily from me like water from a unblocked fountain but I am not that person. I am a worrier and a maker of lists. I am often mired in procrastination, doubt and fear. Fear that the work isn't good enough, fear that it isn't interesting or valid or conveying what I want it to say. Fear that I don't have anything to say anyway and what the hell am I playing at with my silly sequins, jars and pins?

And it is easy to fear those fears and then to shy away from those hard places. But I've found I need to sit with those fears or I can't make my work. The work comes from that grit. Maybe you're the same?

On that note, if you haven't already seen it, I encourage you to watch this Louis C.K. rant about the importance of sitting with pain.


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In my early twenties I was terrified of my art. Absolutely terrified. I was afraid to look at it sideways in case it ran away.

Sad Mask
Kirsty Hall: Sad mask in Edinburgh, Feb 2010

Unsurprisingly, I didn’t make much work. It’s hard to make art when you’re scared that your inspiration will jump up and leave at any moment: muses don’t like clinginess.

In my thirties I went back to college after a break to care for my son. While at art college, I became obsessed with understanding my own process. I wrote about it endlessly, trying to understand the mystery. I mined my memories of childhood to find out where my art came from. I analysed what worked for me and what didn’t. I was searching for patterns.

To my surprise, instead of causing the mystery to evaporate, shining a light on my creativity made it even more magical.

Like a mature relationship, a more intimate familiarity with my own creative process bred endless joy. I had been afraid that understanding my process would kill it. Would take the spark away. Would result in my work becoming boring and mundane. Instead, it made me fall more deeply in love. My process became more accessible, understandable and controllable, yet ever more rich and fascinating to me.

And I learnt to trust it. I learnt to trust that the ‘post-exhibition blues’ would only last a few days. I began to recognise that research phases were different from ‘not working’. I started to understand the need for putting work aside to give time for my editor head to emerge.

The power of metaphors

If you’ve just started to explore your own creative process, here’s a simple technique that I found helpful: come up with metaphors for it. Although metaphors are not literally true, they are a powerful way to understand a process.

Here are three of the metaphors that I have for my own creative process:

Composting

Compost bin
Kirsty Hall: compost bin with slug trail drawings, Dec 2008

The composting metaphor speaks fondly to the deeply organic nature of my process. It also refers to the rather random nature of my ADD brain, which has a habit of tossing up the indigestible things to the top of the pile every now and then - like about once every five minutes!

As any gardener knows, composting doesn’t happen instantly. Similarly, I need to digest ideas: I cannot go from initial idea to finished product in a few weeks. The idea has to steep first, it has to rot down, it has to be invisibly worked on by all the little idea microbes in my head. Looking back over my sketchbooks, I invariably discover that what I think is a ‘new’ idea, will be lightly referred to years before – there will be a throwaway sentence that says something like, ‘there’s something compelling about aprons’ and three years later I'm sewing sequins on a apron.

Perhaps other artists can work on a fast time-scale but my process is glacially slow: by using the composting metaphor, I began to acknowledge and honour that.

Knitting

Knitting
Creative Commons License photo credit: elitatt

For years I beat myself up for picking up ideas and abandoning them before they were completely finished. That’s not to say that I didn’t make finished work: I did. However, I didn't make finished series of work - at least not in a linear and timely fashion.

Because working in series is very important to me, I felt this to be a wrongness within me. Then one day it occurred to me that perhaps my work was like a very complicated jumper and I just hadn’t done enough to be able to see the whole pattern yet. Maybe if I looked back at it, I would be able to see where the different threads had woven in and out, sometimes blue; sometimes complicated stitches of white on white; sometimes little flashes of red. Sometimes sequins; sometimes matches; sometimes pins.

I came to see that there was a method to the way my jittery brain worked. Certainly I'm easily distracted but perhaps I can find a strength in that if I trust to my obscured pattern. I began to accept that I was working in entirely the right way for me.

Now when I’m ready to return to an older series, I think about picking up stitches. Right now the pins are on a stitch marker while I complete the sequin apron but I know that I will return to pins. They are resting and when they are ready to return to my greater pattern, they will.

The Cooking Pot

Dog Stew in pot
Creative Commons License photo credit: avlxyz

Similar to the compost metaphor but a little more edible. Imagine a big gumbo: you throw in everything you’ve got, add lots of garlic and then you leave it to cook down. Mmm, delicious!

Time is the connecting thread in all three of my metaphors. Time changes our raw ingredients into something more mysterious than we could possibly have imagined. Time ensures that the whole can be greater than the sum of parts. Time is vitally important to any artistic process but particularly to mine, which is all about slow art so it's unsurprising that my metaphors revolve around it. By employing metaphors I was able to articulate that relationship.

Process

I've written before about the need to love your process. It needs to be something that you enjoy doing or you simply won’t do it: end of story. But of course, it’s not always that easy, otherwise we would all create perfectly day-in day-out and clearly we don’t.

However, having a metaphor that resonates with you can help strengthen your creative resolve. And when you’re stuck, you can console yourself that you’re just composting.

Resources

Normally I link to other blog posts but today, I'm going to recommend books. There are a ton of books about the creative process, these are my three favourites:

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp
Art & Fear by David Bayles & Ted Orland
Everyday Sacred by Sue Bender

Please Comment

What metaphors do you use for your own creativity process? Let me know in the comments…

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When I was about 15, I went to a school fancy dress party as Cleopatra. In a long halterneck dress that tied at the back of the neck.

And I wore it without a bra because I wasn’t very well-endowed at the time and besides, I didn’t own a backless bra.

And I did that thing that you should never do when you are wearing a halterneck dress without a bra and are slow-dancing with teenage boys. I tied it in a bow, instead of a ninja death knot with 15 safety pins.

Aaaaannnnddddd I think you can see where this story is going, yes?

I danced for several minutes before I realised that everyone was pointing and laughing hysterically. And I wondered why. And then I looked down.

People, I am here to tell you that you cannot, in fact, die of embarrassment. You can certainly WISH that you could die of embarrassment but you will not die just because everyone laughs at you.

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Which is why you'll find me immortalised on the sweet and funny 'Fearless Karaoke' video that Natalie Peluso made to launch her new site, Sing Your Truth. I'm the one making flirty eyes at the camera.

Yep, I jumped in and videoed myself singing. Even though I was just getting over a sore throat. Even though my honey forgot to tell me that the headphones he lent me were noise-cancelling ones, so I couldn’t hear my own voice and it turns out that’s Not A Good Thing when you’re singing (many thanks to Natalie for using some of my more tuneful bits in the video). Even though singing in public is nerve-racking.

But I did it anyway because let's face it, once you've accidentally flashed your entire school as a teenager*, everything else kind of pales into insignificance, even singing badly on the internet.

Kudos to my fellow fearless karaoke-ers and huge big congratulations to Natalie - I know the site is going to be just fantastic. If you don't already know Natalie's previous writing on The Tiny Soprano, you should go over and check out her archives, there's lots of great stuff about motivation, money and fearlessness.

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*This isn’t even the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to me, although it is pretty high up the list.**

**You know what makes this story even more embarrassing? It was only when I was typing this out that it occurred to me that my dress probably hadn’t fallen down by accident. Sigh. I am slow sometimes.

OK, lovelies, dare you share? Let's have your thoughts on the scary power of embarrassment in the comments. Or you can compliment me on my fine singing voice - I am entirely open to flattery, even if you're lying.

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Sadly the lovely people at Make & Meaning have decided to call it a day, so I'm going to be reprinting the two guest articles I wrote for them. Here's the first one:

The Wisdom Of Mistakes


Image by Orin Zebest, via Flickr

An artist who is afraid to make mistakes is an artist who is stuck.

I used to volunteer to teach art at a local primary school. Sadly, by the age of 10, the majority of children had already slipped so far into perfectionism that their ability to make art was suffering. They had a very clear peeking order of who was good at art and who wasn’t and their definition of what constituted ‘being good at art’ seemed to revolve around not making mistakes.

So I devised a little exercise.

I asked them to paint a quick, colourful picture and while it was drying, I led a class discussion. I asked them whether they thought artists made mistakes? They universally agreed that if you were an artist that meant you didn’t make many mistakes and the better you were, the fewer mistakes you would make. I explained that, in fact, the very opposite was true and that someone who wasn’t willing to make mistakes wouldn’t be a very good artist. I explained that ALL artists constantly made mistakes but that they simply saw mistakes as potential opportunities.

Then, I asked them to tear up their paintings.


Image by milomingo, via Flickr

They stared at me in horror and disbelief. 'Rip them up’, I urged, ‘rip them up!’ Clearly still believing they would get into trouble, a few of the braver ones made tentative little rips. ‘That’s brilliant, do more’, I encouraged. Suddenly most of the class understood that they really did have permission to destroy their work and things dissolved into gleeful giggles and wild tearing. After several minutes of creative mayhem, I asked them to stop, take a few minutes to calm down and then to re-examine their pile of torn paper with a view to transforming it into a collage. The collages weren’t anything to write home about but it’s still the art lesson of which I’m proudest and in an age of constant exams and teaching to the test, I hope it stuck with at least a few of them.

“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”  ~Scott Adams

Imperfection can be the pathfinder that leads us to new places IF we are willing to let go of our ego and put our trust in the wisdom of the work.

New techniques, new directions, new ideas; mistakes open up so many possibilities.


Image by pygment_shots, via Flickr

That tricky yarn that just refuses to work with any knitting pattern – what is it trying to teach you? Patience? Not to buy that colour combination again? Or is it challenging you to come up with a new stitch pattern that will make the most of its variegated repeats?

Is the ceramic glaze that bubbles in the kiln and ‘spoils’ the pot really a disaster? Or can you repeat and refine the process until you no longer have ‘a mistake’ but a unique signature style? What sort of surface are you left with if you sand back the bubbled glaze? Or if you crack the bubbles lightly with a hammer, add another layer of glaze and refire? Can you think of ten different things to try with your ‘ruined’ pot?

The painting that went wrong might lead you to a whole new series of work if you listen to what its telling you.

Ruined pieces often lead to new directions because there’s nothing left to lose. You’ve already used the materials and many of them can’t be reclaimed: the ink won’t go back into the bottle, the paper will never be pristine again. So why not let loose with some wild experimentation – rip it up, overdye it, splash bleach on, paint over it in gesso, turn it inside out and sew beads on it! Baring freakishly bizarre crafting accidents, what’s the worst that can happen? You were going to throw it out anyway.


Image by LittleLexxis, via Flickr

Of course, all artists and craftspeople have their irredeemable failures that are fit only for the bin. The idea that seemed so great inside your head but wasn’t; the new technique that drove you up the wall; the brave attempt that was too far beyond your current skill level: our studios are stuffed with them!

But even these poor ugly objects have value. They were steps along your journey and they may have taught you far more than the pieces that went well.

Perhaps their only message is, ‘hmm, I don’t think woodworking is my thing’. But that is a very valuable lesson: now you have one less craft to master while you search for your ‘right thing’.

Or the lesson might be, “I am bad at this now but I enjoyed the process so much that I’m willing to invest the time, money and energy needed to become better.” And the second lesson might be, “so I shall keep this failed thing and in a year I’ll be able to see how far I’ve come.”


Image by carpocrates, via Flickr

“Creative people make a mess, clean it up and make another mess. There are no mistakes in art only happy little accidents.”  ~Timothy Leonard

So drag out one of your failures (come on, I know you’ve got at least one lurking!) and challenge yourself to see it with fresh enquiring eyes.

Even if it can’t be reworked, experimented with or recycled, hold it in your hands and ask it what it can teach you. Ask yourself why it didn’t work. Try to find some tiny part of it that did work, even if the whole thing is a failure. A particular piece may be beyond saving but it could still hold the answers to your current creative dilemmas.

Don’t listen to your inner critic, listen to the work. What subtle whispers have you ignored because your ego got in the way, loudly declared, ‘that’s rubbish’ and tossed the thing in the corner in disgust?

An artist humble enough to learn from their mistakes is an artist who is moving forwards.

What have you learnt from mistakes and failures? Tell me in the comments...

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Gossiping Ducks by foxypar4

Sometimes I have to slide sideways into things. Or trick myself into starting by making projects smaller than they truly are.

I am cursed with perfectionism, so often the only way forward is to just close my eyes and jump.

Which is how I found myself opening an online shop for my art. Without branding. Without a big launch. Without having all my drawings scanned and ready to go. Without enough mounts or packaging materials. With all my ducks decidedly not in anything even vaguely resembling a row. In fact, I’m not entirely sure where my pond is and it’s quite likely that all my ducks have flown off in a huff.

But I started anyway.

There’s not much in my shop yet (see aforementioned lack of ducks) but I’m adding things as I go along. It’s also possible that my pricing is entirely wrong but I decided that fear of pricing was a lousy reason not to start something.

And I have no idea if this is going to work.

I’ve already sold two envelopes (yay!) but maybe no one else will ever buy anything. You'd think that this would be a source of stress, that I would be filled with the fear of rejection. But weirdly, it doesn't seem to matter and that's because I just jumped. Without too much preparation or angst or investment of time, energy, money or emotion.

Sure, it would be fabulous if I make a gazillion pounds selling art online – don’t get me wrong, I absolutely want this to succeed - but I’m also very clear that it’s a test piece, a maquette, an experiment.

See, that’s the great thing about the internet - the cost of entry is low. I don’t have to spend lots of money ‘setting up a business’, I can just say, ‘hey, let’s throw a few quid at an online store for six months and see if it works?’ If it doesn’t, well, no harm, no foul and I’ll have learnt some useful stuff. I’m hugely interested in trying new things online. At the moment it still feels as though there's a lot of freedom on the web; that maybe I can do things in my own strange, messed up way and still make a go of it. That maybe all those ducks aren’t quite as important as people tell you.


Our local synchronized swimming team by Eric Bégin

Because I think I can do this, but not if I have to get my ducks in order first. My ducks are recalcitrant, they fly away when they’re told to line up, they quack in a rebellious manner, they flaunt their sassy little ducktails like 50’s rockers. And when I wring my hands about business-type things, they make rude and unhelpful Donald Duck noises. My ducks have ATTITUDE.


In the Swim by StarrGazr

Now I'm not saying that you should make a half-arsed job of things. If you're the sort of person who can easily organise your ducks, that's absolutely great - you've got a huge advantage and you should use it to the full. What I am saying is that for perfectionists, the perceived need to get all our ducks in a row before we start anything can be a very effective stalling technique. It can be an excuse. And sometimes you have to be braver than that.

So I’ve learnt to pointedly ignore my ducks and then quietly organise them into rows when they're not looking.

How do you deal with your ducks? Let me know in the comments...

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“Art is beautiful but it is hard, like a religion without a purpose.”
Gunter Brus

Close up photograph of artist Kirsty Hall performing Pin Ritual 01
Kirsty Hall: Performing Pin Ritual, Dec 2003

People who aren’t working in a creative profession often think that what we do is easy, fun, glamorous or exciting. And it can be all of those things. But it’s also a time-consuming, brain-melting obsession that will eat your life.

It is not ‘five minutes, boom, you’re done, sit back and drink a martini’ - that is not how the creative process goes for even the most talented people. Techniques take time to learn and perfect. You make mistakes. Then you make bigger mistakes and have to start over. Even once you’ve learnt your craft, it’s twisty: you fret, you fiddle and things go wrong. You can pick away at a problem for months or years with no guarantee that you’ll ever crack it.

Sure, some people make it look easy but I’d bet my granny’s pension that they’re working hard when your back is turned. They’re dreaming their way into a role; they’re thinking about their sculpture on their lunch break; they’re drawing for hours every day.

So you need to enjoy the process of what you do. Because that’s what you’re going to be doing all day.

Photograph by Kirsty Hall of red thread and needle
Kirsty Hall: Red thread and needle, May 2008

If you plan to make hats for a living, you’d better love plittering around with felt and feathers. If you’re going to carve wood, you’d better not be allergic to sawdust. If you want to act, you’d better be able to put up with hanging out with other actors, learning lines and spending lots of time waiting around.

Now, obviously no one loves every single thing about their job but if you dislike most of your process, then you’re in the wrong creative field or are using the wrong medium.

I know this sounds stupid but I see a lot of young artists making this mistake. They’re naturally great at video but instead try to make sculptures because they feel they ‘should’. Or they have a talent for colour but feel guilty that it’s ‘too easy’, so they chose to work in monochrome even through they secretly long to pick up that tube of orange.

If you call yourself an artist but find yourself making excuses to write instead of making art, you might really be a writer. If you find oils endlessly frustrating but make watercolours for fun on your days off, you may be using the wrong kind of paint. If you hate having clay under your fingernails, making pots is not for you.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t challenge yourself by exploring new areas. Nor am I saying that everything needs to be easy – it won’t be. I’m saying that you absolutely must have a deep and abiding love for the actual processes of your craft. You need to be able to think, “Oh wow, sewing sequins on this apron is still kind of great, even through I’ve been doing it for a year & I’m kind of bored now”.

Photograph of cream sequins by Kirsty Hall
Kirsty Hall: Close up of sequins, Oct 2009

Because a lot of the time you will be frustrated, stuck or thoroughly fed up and in my experience, if you don’t have that core passion for your daily reality, then you will quit.

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I am in the midst of a rather intense CFS crash & can't concentrate on writing. I was stressing out about tumbleweeds blowing through the blog, when I thought 'wait a minute, I've got tons of old writing I could reuse'. So here's a slightly edited piece from my college years. It seemed apt to publish a piece about Still Life at a time when my life is essentially standing still.

Still Life - written 1st July 2001

I have come to realise that much of what I make is actually Still Life. My photographs, in particular, definitely have a Still Life sensibility. I am looking at small things, like hot raspberries on the beach or the reflection in a bowl of water and saying that they are small, yet very important.

photograph by Kirsty Hall of reflection in a bowl containing salt water
Kirsty Hall: Salt Bowl Reflection, May 2006

It seems to me that that is what most Still Lives do: they take things and set them apart. Still Life demands that we really look at the flagon of wine and the apple, or the bowl of cherries, or the lifeless carcasses. It ponders the flowers, the glass and the tablecloth. It makes us see the texture of everyday life and forces the realisation that actually these things are amazing. The bread we eat, the soft cheese, the pile of fruit, the luscious cakes, the humble or grand spread. This is what keeps us alive after all. This is what nourishes us.

Photograph by Kirsty Hall of bread, cheese and sun-dried tomato
Kirsty Hall: Bread, cheese & sun-dried tomato, Dec 2008

Of course, we also need vast epic pictures of the imagination and portraits that force us to look at our frail human bodies. We need art to consider many things. But it seems sad to me that Still Life should so long have been considered to be the least important subject when it also deals with life and death. To me, mortality seems a vital component of many Still Lives. Those flowers will soon be dead: they are just caught for a moment in time. Caught at the point of perfection? Or perhaps already weeping their petals onto the rough-hewn table or perfect lace. That food will spoil or be devoured by a hoard of hungry mouths. Even that fine glass goblet will eventually be broken or lost. The table itself will be consumed by history. Who knows what happened to the musical instruments, the sheet music or the pile of books? They are lost to us except for the contained, still, captured image.

Photograph by Kirsty Hall of a dead tulip against a wall
Kirsty Hall: Dead Tulip, Feb 2008

It is that quality of stillness that I love about Still Life. More and more my work has been edging towards stillness; not actual silence but definitely quietness. I think I am looking for contemplation and the mysterious void. Stillness is a quality that I associate strongly with the colour white, which is perhaps why my work has contained so much paleness in the last two years. I am searching for that perfect moment perhaps, that moment of clarity and stillness?

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I have an art school monster. It lives in my head. It feeds on my fears and starts nasty little rumours.


Image by autumn_bliss, used under Creative Commons license

Maybe my monster was there before art school, a cute little baby monster perhaps? But art school gave it shape and helped it grow. Art school gave it the words to wound me.

I had a great and challenging time at art school. I learnt a lot and grew immensely. I met amazing people, had fantastic experiences, drank a huge amount of tea and worked extremely hard.

I wouldn’t give up that time for anything - but it did leave behind a few scars and a monster. And boy is it hard to create when you have a whispering monster taking up space in your studio!

Right now my monster is telling me that creating with fabric is a stupid thing to do. A girly thing. An embarrassing thing. Even though I love fabric, fibre and thread and adore the work that other artists make with it, my monster says that people will think I’m rubbish if I use it. Not serious enough, not clever enough, not arty enough.

Real contemporary artists shouldn’t use textiles according to my art school monster.

This is all nonsense, of course. Many wonderful artists use textiles. No one says boo to Louise Bourgeois or Ann Hamilton when they use fabric. One of my fellow students happily used felt all through her final year and as far as I recall no one said squat about it. Heck, she even got a couple of grants to go to a felt conference somewhere wacky like Uzbekistan and we all thoroughly enjoyed the presentation she gave when she returned. I sometimes used fabric when I was at art school and no one gave me a hard time about it either.

So where on earth does my monster get these crazy ideas?

I’ve been trying to take a leaf out of the wonderful Havi’s book and speak kindly to my monster. I tell it that I understand that it’s just trying to protect me from criticism and harm. But honestly, I think my monster is just a frightful snob and I wish it would take its stupid opinions and shove them!


Image by herlitz-monster-talent, used under Creative Commons license

I'd love to hear about your monsters in the comments...

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Broken Bauble
Kirsty Hall: Broken Bauble, January 2010

Last October I took Alyson Stanfield's excellent Blast Off course. This course was a life-changing experience for me - amongst other things, I realised that I need to find more sustainable ways to manage my health & my art before I can develop my career further.

Basically, I've been trying to build my house on sand. I've been constantly draining myself by doing more than my health allows. Because I'm pig awkward that way.

Last November's arts trail was a good case in point. I've only just been back to take down 3 Score & 10 because I got sick immediately after the trail, then my host fell ill, then there was Christmas & snow. I finally managed to take the work down last Monday but completely exhausted myself in the process and I've been in a proper CFS crash ever since. I'm not quite on bed rest but it's pretty close.

This is clearly absolutely unsustainable; I cannot continue to do shows if it knocks me out for months afterwards.

Now obviously I don't want to give up doing shows: I love exhibiting my work - it's one of my favourite parts of being an artist. Since I want to continue to make art and exhibit it, it's clear to me that I need to do everything in my power to recover from my Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

That's a tough call because no one knows what causes it or how to fix it but even if I can't find a permanent cure, I want to get to a healthier place. So I've been working on my pacing and my chronic insomnia. I also took a scary step and in November I joined Slimming World. I've lost 18.5 pounds so far and my goal is lose a further 3 stone by Christmas 2010, something I'm well on track to do. Losing weight is unlikely to be a miracle cure - I was unwell before I put on weight - but I know that being overweight can't be helping. Slimming World is awesome, btw - I won't bang on about it here but email if you'd like to know more about my experiences with it.

Even though I currently feel like Wile E. Coyote after he's been squashed flat by an anvil, I'm taking the long view here. This is definitely NOT me giving up, it's me refocusing and working on the basics. I do still have an art career, I'm just taking the scenic route: there will lots of tea breaks, picnics on the side of the road and photographs of sheep but I'll get there eventually!